If you look at the sea of purple that swells at each Walk to End Alzheimer’s across the country, within it, you will likely see an energetic group of women who come in droves to help put an end to Alzheimer’s. What is the story behind these women? They are members of Sigma Kappa Sorority.
A women’s organization with 118 chapters on college campuses and 97 alumnae chapters across the United States and abroad, Sigma Kappa has been in the fight against Alzheimer’s since 1984. This was the year that the sorority’s leaders decided they wanted to focus philanthropic efforts on a specific issue related to gerontology. Those leaders had the foresight to select what at the time was a relatively unknown disease that was not-talked-about-at-family-functions. Today, more than 11 million women in the United States are either living with Alzheimer’s or caring for someone with it. It is one of the most costly and critical health issues of our time.
Since 1989, the Sigma Kappa Foundation, which creates and funds philanthropic initiatives that honor the values of the Sigma Kappa Sorority, has raised nearly $15 million to advance dementia research and support families fighting Alzheimer’s disease. This includes a gift of $1 million for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Research Initiative to study the gender differential in the disease. Sigma Kappa also committed $1 million to support the U.S. POINTER Study, a large clinical trial to evaluate whether lifestyle changes that simultaneously target many risk factors can delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in older adults who are at increased risk.
A Common Bond
Sigma Kappa is invested in advancing Alzheimer’s research and actively promotes this commitment when recruiting new members. Too many families have been impacted by this devastating disease, and those that have joined Sigma Kappa have shared that finding an organization that is helping to find a cure to something that has been so personally devastating is meaningful.
“I was drawn to Sigma Kappa because of our philanthropy. When I was 5 years old, my Granny started developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. By the time I was 8, her symptoms had become severe enough that she had to move in with my family. I grew up with this disease and saw first- hand how it affects not only the person with the disease, but also their loved ones. All my other grandparents passed away when I was young, so my Granny was the only grandparent I had the opportunity to have a relationship with. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s took that away. I admire the passion Sigma Kappa has to end Alzheimer’s and it has been an honor to contribute to the fight,” says Sarah Hirschbeck, a Sigma Kappa Sorority member from Ball State University who now attends The University of Tennessee Knoxville for graduate work.
“As a Ph.D. student, I am using my fascination with science to study the toxic mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. I am specifically studying what is happening during disease progression to gain insight for development of future drugs,” she continues.
For Sigma Kappa member Courtney Kloske, Ph.D., joining the sorority at Auburn University and immersing herself in its philanthropic work led to a career path focused on Alzheimer’s. She currently serves as the Associate Director of Science Engagement and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I chose to do Alzheimer’s disease research at the University of Kentucky for my Ph.D. because of the connection I felt from my time in Sigma Kappa. I truly appreciate Sigma Kappa’s generous contribution to my education and research toward one day finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.” Kloske shares. Kloske was one of Sigma Kappa’s 35 Under 35 honorees in 2021. Both Kloske and Hirschbeck are recipients of the Sigma Kappa Foundation’s Alzheimer’s/Gerontology Scholarship.
Facing Alzheimer’s Together
We also have countless Sigma Kappa alumnae who have become the caregivers for their partners, parents, grandparents and other loved ones. While it may not be the reason they joined Sigma Kappa, knowing they are surrounded by a community of women who understand the impact of Alzheimer’s disease provides an important support system.
Amber Singleton Soergel is just one example. Amber met her husband Ed as she was finishing graduate school. Twenty years her senior, Amber thought her future husband was too old for her, but as their friendship developed, they realized they didn’t see a future without the other one in it. After three years in different parts of the world, they made a life together in Arizona, where Amber established a career while Ed retired from the army to work for the VA. Then, things began to change. First, Ed forgot the security code to the house, which was also his ATM code. Then, he couldn’t figure out directional signs at an airport he had been going to for years. More signs of Alzheimer’s emerged, and now, their life is different than they imagined it would be. Amber has become Ed’s caregiver.
Amber not only had her Sigma Kappa educational experiences regarding Alzheimer’s, but also had a solid social network of fellow members to guide her in advocating for his diagnosis, which came four years later. “I honestly don’t know how I would have done this for so long without the support of both Sigma Kappa and the Alzheimer’s Association”, she says. “They have both provided me with strength to keep going and the knowledge to know what is coming as the disease progresses.”
These are just a handful of the personal reasons the women of Sigma Kappa are so passionate about the work of the Alzheimer’s Association. Tawny Mekeel James, Sigma Kappa Foundation president shared, “we want to be there the day the cure is found knowing we helped with critical research, provided support to caregivers and educated our corner of the world on this dreaded disease.”
The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research programs. Sigma Kappa has a long-term partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association. Sigma Kappa chapters form teams and participate in their local Walk to End Alzheimer’s events. Sigma Kappa has consistently raised more than $1 million annually and is a Diamond Level National Team. Learn more.